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The Current Debate: Pop Anthems for Cannes

A look at the changing use of pop music in film, including films at this year’s festival.
Jacob Paul
The premiere of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey at Cannes on Sunday saw the director and cast show off a few dance moves during their red carpet photo-op, in what Vanity Fair, perhaps channeling a Downton Abbey character, called a “charmingly youthful moment.” Red carpet attire excepted, the spontaneous performance apparently fit right in with the film, which includes a pop soundtrack and a dance scene of its own, per The Telegraph’s Tim Robey:
Twice, during Andrea Arnold’s rapturously scuzzy road movie American Honey, Rihanna and Calvin Harris grace the soundtrack with “We Found Love”, their euphoric 2011 dance-floor smash that invites you to drop everything, get high and lose yourself. It’s first heard over the tannoy in an Oklahoma Walmart, where main characters Star (Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) clap eyes on each other, while the latter’s crew of wasters, waifs and strays grab provisions up and down the aisles.
Not long into the song, Jake is using one of the checkouts as a podium, and security have to show this peacocking punk the exit.
Two hours later, it’s also the chosen track for Star and her new friends, as they roll up to an oil-field in their people carrier. It’s bold of Arnold to repeat the song, which is already such an on-the-nose choice lyrically – “we found love in a hopeless place” could practically be this film’s poster tagline. But it's her characters who are picking the playlist. Just try and stop them.
This is not the first time in recent memory that a chart-topping pop song has played a key role in a film at Cannes: Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, which premiered in competition in 2012, puts Katy Perry’s “Firework” to similar use in two distinct scenes. Writing at the A.V. Club, Scott Tobias noted that “It says something that Audiard’s ‘killer whale movie’ stages its most emotional moment to a Katy Perry song and still deserves to be taken seriously,” but the film’s use of pop music was met with slightly more skepticism elsewhere, including in A. O. Scott’s review in the Times:
“Rust and Bone” is a strong, emotionally replete experience, and also a tour de force of directorial button pushing. Mr. Audiard is a canny showman, adept at manipulating the audience’s feelings and expectations with quick edits and well-chosen songs. (In addition to Bon Iver and Bruce Springsteen, “Rust and Bone” makes surprisingly effective use of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”)
I don’t mean to diminish the film; I’m trying, instead, to acknowledge its power while pointing out some of its limitations. This is, in the end, the kind of big-hearted boxing movie that has long been a Hollywood staple, coupled with a tale of disability that is equally familiar. It’s something of a fairy tale, in other words, but one that casts its spell with a rough, raw and sometimes thrillingly ugly magic.
Robey’s suggestion that “it’s [Arnold’s] characters who are picking the playlist” in American Honey amounts to a preemptive defense of observations like Scott’s, though it’s not clear that such a refutation is completely necessary: pop in film hardly seems to be reliably met with doubt. Griping about the Top 40’s powers of manipulation, for example, is all but absent from reviews of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, which premiered at Cannes two years after Rust and Bone, and which features a central scene set to the full length of a number-one pop anthem, as Sheila O’Malley describes at RogerEbert.com:
A masterpiece scene comes halfway through, so powerful in its representation of shared joy and freedom that it sets off echoes around it that continue throughout the rest of the film. The girls have shop-lifted pretty dresses, and booked a hotel room where they can hang out for the night, maybe go out to a club later in their stolen goods. There's a sense of exhilaration in the moment, and the four get up and start dancing together to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” The light is a deep blue, and the girls are jumping and laughing and loving each other's awesomeness for almost the entirety of the song. All four are in the frame at the same time. Sciamma has given us what feels like a real event, a real moment, one of those precious moments in time that the girls might look back on and think, “That. That was good.”
It’s possible that changing attitudes in criticism correspond to an evolution in the way pop music is used in film. Miriam Bale, in a few tweets that got my own wheels turning on this subject, posits that Girlhood is one of a recent crop of films to represent a transition “From mixtape auteurs (Andersons & Coppola) to diegetic, poignant/ironic performance.” The notion of mix-tape auteurism was explored by Will Schmenner in a 2009 issue of The Baffler, tracing the introduction, in 2000, of the “Best Compilation Soundtrack Album” category at the Grammys to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and in turn to Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas, which use pop as ironic soundtracks to violence in the early 1990s:
As a running motif through the movie’s failed capers, Tarantino has the fictional K-Billy radio show, “Super Sounds of the Seventies,” serve as an omnipresent background soundtrack. The device was, typically, a perfect delivery system for Tarantino to advertise his own pop culture taste—and in turn figures prominently in the movie’s most infamous scene, where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts the ear off a captive police officer in a warehouse while dancing to the soft-rock Stealers Wheel tune “Stuck in the Middle with You.” Unlike The Graduate or 2001, where the music typically comes out of nowhere, Reservoir Dogs draws attention to its functionality: Mr. Blonde saunters over to the radio to turn it on and pauses to ask his gagged hostage if he’s ever listened to K-Billy. When Mr. Blonde leaves the warehouse to retrieve the gas from his car for some more mayhem, the song fades away until the camera, involved in an elaborate, teasing tracking shot, follows him back inside.
The shift from Reservoir Dogs to Girlhood is not one of non-diegetic sound to diegetic sound, nor from non-performance to performance, as the violence in Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas (where the music comes from a jukebox) offers its own kind of performance. But I think Bale’s tweet is nevertheless onto something, which is a change in the nature of the performances on display: the irony of the scene in Girlhood (stolen dresses, dramatic blue light) works as a kind of affirmation, rather than a cheap contrast. As James Lattimer puts it at Slant:
This effortlessly winning scene is where Sciamma’s true coup finds its clearest expression: By allowing her depiction of these young women to take its cues from the self-image they themselves desire, reality and aspiration flow into one another in a way that feels perfectly, painfully teenage.
A similar idea might be found in a scene in another new film at Cannes this year, writer-director Maren Ade’s near-universally praised Toni Erdmann, per Jonathan Romney at Sight & Sound:
The scene involves a somewhat buttoned-up character finding herself reluctantly singing Whitney Houston’s super-saccharine, mawkishly life-affirming The Greatest Love of All at a strangers’ party – then throwing herself body and soul into her passionately off-key performance. The scene earned Sandra Hüller a spontaneous round of applause at the evening press screening, and it’s one of the reasons why Ade’s film is looking set to be one of the competition’s very best.
The emerging theme here is a form of sincerity: these films may still play pop songs at some distance of irony, but their goal of eliciting a laugh or otherwise affecting the audience is not look-how-hip self-reflexivity: it’s rather about advancing characters in a meaningful way. I wonder if it might also reflect a broader shift in attitudes about pop music in general, as artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé release work that is personal and political as well as popular. As mainstream pop music has embraced feminism, you might say the movies have noticed.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


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